Texas' Driver Responsibility Program, perhaps the most loathed program administered by the state, is no more. Friday afternoon, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill putting the program to the sword Sept. 1, clearing the path for about 1.5 million Texans to regain their driver's licenses.
The program imposed surcharges on Texas drivers who did things like driving without a license or driving under the influence. The surcharges were imposed on top of standard fines and ranged from $250 per year for three years for driving with an invalid license to $2,000 per year for three years for a DWI in which the driver is caught with a blood alcohol level of 0.16 — twice the legal limit — or higher. Drivers who accumulated too many points on their licenses for moving violations or moving violations resulting in a crash were also subject to surcharges.
While the surcharges were nuisances to everyone who had to pay them, they amounted to financial quicksand for Texas' most vulnerable residents. People would get a ticket and then keep accumulating fines, keeping their license suspended and making them vulnerable to additional tickets and fines.
"The Driver Responsibility Program has forced thousands of Texans to pay for their liberty, which is no justice at all. Suspending someone’s license only further removes them from the workforce, leaving them without money to pay additional fees," said Terri Burke, the executive director for the ACLU of Texas. "With partners across the state, the ACLU of Texas has worked for years to end this program. This is a major step in our quest to create a criminal justice system for Texas that is not only smarter but more just, particularly for those most affected by systemic hardship."
Thanks to the program ending, more than 630,000 people will immediately be eligible to have their driver's licenses reinstated, because they have no fees or suspensions that stem from something other than the DRP, according to the Texas ACLU. About 350,000 people will be able to get their licenses back after paying a reinstatement fee and a further 400,000 will be able to drive legally if they can resolve their non-DRP-related suspensions. Any remaining surcharges owed by drivers forced to enroll in the program will be wiped out on Sept. 1, the bill's effective date.
Dumping the plan, which went into effect in 2003, also gets the state off a legal hook. Equal Justice Under Law, a civil rights advocacy group, sued the state to stop the program in December, alleging that it violated the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection clause by denying vulnerable Texans a vital credential.
“This unfair license suspension scheme particularly targets Texas’ most impoverished residents, who are often unaware additional charges are owed under the DRP,” Phil Telfeyan, the lead attorney in a lawsuit seeking to end the program and executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, said at the time. “Individuals who cannot pay will often lose their job and their home — becoming homeless — for a minor ticket that wealthier drivers simply pay and forget.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the Driver Responsibility Program was ending immediately. It is ending Sept. 1.
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